The Anniversary

Iowa Turns 20

Roadrunner
2001
Roadrunner
2001

While to the unimpressed, nü metal may have seemed like an indistinguishable black cloud descending on the mores of good taste (in the ’90s? as if), each band in the canon had their own point of entry for disenfranchised young people everywhere. System Of A Down were political. Linkin Park had Matrix-era nerd cred. KoRn leaned into the hip-hop grooves. Kittie gave a voice to teenage girls, whereas Limp Bizkit spoke to the inner bro. As a fellow disaffected teenager at the time, these were all in heavy rotation on my Walkman. But Slipknot… Slipknot were genuinely kind of scary. And, of course, that was the point.

From the jump, Slipknot committed fully to maximalism. This was a nine-person band with two DJs (one on turntables, one on samples) and three percussionists (one drummer and two guys who banged away with chopsaws, power tools, and a welded together titanium Frankenkit of kegs and jagged metal) all bent on making the loudest, most brutal industrial noise possible. Fred Durst jumped around telling fans to break stuff? Slipknot performed in custom-made nightmare masks and identical jumpsuits that allowed them to be at their most unhinged in a stage show which regularly entailed setting fire to their equipment, breaking their bones during acrobatic stunts, and spilling their own blood, vomit, piss, and shit. (Just imagine what those jumpsuits and masks must have smelled like.)

Rob Zombie and Marilyn Manson also played up a theatrical ghoulishness, but at the end of the day, Zombie was a Pratt alum and Manson a former music writer. Members of Slipknot worked night shifts at gas stations and porn stores, grappled with teenage drug addictions and stints of homelessness, practiced in a basement soundproofed with a pet store carpet that reeked of animal urine, and were hungry to channel all their isolation, frustration, and rage into exploding out of Iowa like a post-apocalyptic warhead forged in an abandoned metal shop.

It worked. Their self-titled debut album, recorded at the infamous Indigo Ranch with nü metal impresario and production sadist Ross Robinson, became a cult hit, went platinum within three months of release, and landed them an opening slot on Ozzfest ’99. Although Slipknot contained all the nü hallmarks (turntablism, speed rap vocals) that had metal purists rolling their eyes, Slipknot were far from gimmicky. This was a sort of Iowa supergroup full of hard workers and skilled musicians with roots in speed, thrash, and death metal, and everything they did was thoroughly thought-out and deeply intentional. Slipknot became the fastest selling debut metal album in history, spending 45 weeks in the Billboard 200 despite a lack of critical or media support. Maggots, as their devoted fans were known, brought them a human femur bone, a pig heart, a dead bird in a jar.

Everyone expected the sophomore album to be more accessible. Instead, Slipknot went heavier, deeper, and darker. If the self-titled was a cartoonishly grotesque goblin, Iowa was the Calamity Ganon final evolution: so massive, monstrous, and unrelentingly evil that it remains hailed as one of the greatest metal albums of all time. Released 20 years ago this weekend, it’s been dubbed a “manic hailstorm of grind,” a “bludgeoning, unrelentingly mean-spirited constant from start to finish,” and “probably the most extreme album ever made by an arena band.”

“It was just rage for the sake of rage,” singer Corey Taylor told Revolver. “I was cutting myself recording songs in the studio. I was bleeding everywhere… It was just gnarly, and I was so fuckin’ unhappy.” Where the self-titled provided some cathartic release, on Iowa, Taylor was holding his demons close and not letting anything go.

After the debut, the band moved from Des Moines to LA, where the members were either pulled into the predictable sex-drugs-and-booze spiral of a new band met with sudden stardom, or disgusted with those who were. Physically and psychically exhausted from a punishing two-year tour schedule (rough under the gentlest of circumstances, let alone the kind of masochistic acrobatics the band became known for pulling off every night), Slipknot went right back to the studio to record the follow-up with Robinson, who had just broken his back in a motocross accident. Percussionist and Slipknot ringleader Shawn “Clown” Crahan’s wife became very ill, and Crahan was frustrated that he couldn’t be with her, or even provide significant financial assistance because the band was still not seeing any real money from the debut. Turntablist Sid Wilson couldn’t go home to see his dying grandfather, and his ensuing meltdown became the intro track “(515).” Slipknot had blown through the recording of the energetic self-titled, eager to manifest their vision. For Iowa, they were angry, sick of each other, and running on fumes. The band threw furniture through the Sound City patio doors into the Los Angeles River. No one was having any fun.

Listening to the album again with all that in mind, Taylor’s hoarse growl of “here we go again motherfuckers” seems as much of a warning for the audience as a bracing call for a band pushed to its absolute limit. But Slipknot met the pressure head-on, pulling out a groundbreaking album which refuses to be replicated. Grunge had “killed” metal in the ’90s, trading virtuosic instrumentation for punk amateurism and glam-rock posturing for the infamous Gen-X self-deprecation; Iowa gave listeners both the mastery and the self-loathing.

The album enters with a chugging onslaught titled “People=Shit,” with the titular refrain done as a gang vocal built for sending stadiums into a frenzy. It sets the tone for the kind of nihilism that’s about to ensue (which doubles down when “Disasterpiece” opens with the unforgettable line, “I want to slit your throat and fuck the wound”) but also for how much the musicianship had evolved. Robinson’s impressive mixing work — no small feat considering he had to work with nine people — lets all the elements shine through. Guitarists Mick Thomson and Jim Root deliver colossal shredding, while Thomson also draws out unsettling squeals, wails, and screeches from his instrument for a truly “evil” sound. Joey Jordison’s now-legendary technique, precision, and stamina, especially on heavy blastbeats and lighting-fast double kick, further set Slipknot apart from the more hip-hop influenced rhythm section of bands like KoRn and Linkin Park and give the album its mad propulsion. (Jordison, who passed earlier this year, has been praised as one of metal’s greatest drummers; watching him is still awe-inspiring, especially when the Iowa tour placed him behind a rotating kit that went upside-down during the “Disasterpiece” solo.)

The mixture of homage and growth was evident. For Iowa, Slipknot eschewed many of the nü metal bells and whistles in favor of more straightforward metal, only turned up to 11. “The Heretic Anthem” treads classic Iron Maiden ground, honoring the number of the beast with a brutality that made Maiden sound like soft rock by comparison. Yet, on the choruses of “My Plague” and “Left Behind,” along with other brief but choice moments, Taylor lets up on the extreme vocals long enough to belt crystal-clear melodies in that mellifluous Stone Sour croon, hinting at future ballads to come.

Further, deviating from the nü metal formula didn’t make Iowa any less experimental. Turntables skid like a car swerving off the road. The bleak textures, aggressive distortion, and unnerving samples venture into noise music territory. And the 14-minute closer “Iowa” is a shifting, sprawling epic that portends the extreme soundscapes of bands such as Deafheaven (who have cited Slipknot as an influence).

If anything got in Iowa‘s way, it wasn’t the experimentation but the timing. Iowa was released on August 28, 2011, right before the 9/11 attacks, which took place the day Slipknot was supposed to leave for the aptly named Pledge Of Allegiance tour with System Of A Down. “We had to pass on a lot of tours because of fear,” Taylor told Revolver. “It wasn’t a good time for the country, but it wasn’t a good time for us, either. We got banned at a lot of radio stations and MTV wouldn’t touch us.” Nevertheless, the album hit #3 on the Billboard charts and #1 in the UK, went platinum in the US, UK, and Canada, and received generally positive reviews, as well as Grammy nominations for “Left Behind” and “My Plague.”

I found out about Slipknot initially because a friend in middle school, who now runs an excellent independent metal label, had the provocative AIM username People=Shit. He was part of a group who called themselves the Metal Militia, which might have some eyebrow-raising connotations in a post-Columbine world, but we were 12, it sounded cool, and they were some of the nicest kids around. I’m sure this is just one of many similar stories — the band’s singular vision captured the imaginations of countless fans, who took that and ran with it. Now, Slipknot’s influence can be felt in countless metal and hardcore bands such as Carnifex, Knocked Loose, Vein, Harms Way, Employed To Serve, and Code Orange, as well as more aggressive hip-hop, gabber, punk, and noise projects. The masked and jumpsuit-wearing Coma-Doof warrior in Mad Max: Fury Road who rides in on a rig loaded with massive speaker towers armed with a double-neck guitar that shoots flames? That’s pure Slipknot. (Actually, the whole movie feels like a Slipknot fanfic, with its feral violence, ad-hoc machinery, and sinister excess.)

While the heaviness of Slipknot got people’s attention and opened the door for more extreme bands to cross into the mainstream, and Vol 3: The Subliminal Verses (containing the hit “Duality”) presented a more accessible version of the band, Iowa is generally regarded as Slipknot’s magnum opus, spoken of with the hushed reverence usually reserved for Kid A: the art album, the one for fans who really “get it.”

Twenty years later, Iowa doesn’t scare me anymore. When I ask people about Slipknot now, I get mixed reactions — in a post-Trump world there is a certain liberal apprehension for the optics of angry blue-collar white men from the middle of the country, as the world grapples with the potential consequences of that rage. But anyone familiar with the band on more than a surface level is enthusiastic. Corey Taylor has regularly spoken out against the Bush and Trump administrations, as well as bullying, racism in metal, toxic masculinity, and toxic fandom. Members of the band have always said that the performative violence at Slipknot shows serves as an outlet for people to express the violence of their day to day life, without giving into it in more dangerous ways. Even in “People=Shit” there are lines about not being afraid to cry and struggling with being everything to everyone. And in the explosive pyrotechnics of the moment there is an underlying intimacy: a Maggot collectivity, a recognition for people who feel alienated from both the dead-end conservatism of their immediate surroundings and the polished messaging of the coasts. Twenty years later, that feels more important than ever. And the album goes as heavy now as it did then.

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